Bill Burr: Breaking out of stereotype

Bill Burr opens his European tour in Glasgow this week following “a great year of working like a maniac”. Fans of Breaking Bad will recognise the comedian as Kuby, corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman’s henchman in the hit US TV show, and his acting resumé has filled up lately with a series of low-life, sleazeball roles in Hollywood.

Bill Burr: The loud guy in the bar has changed
Bill Burr: The loud guy in the bar has changed
Bill Burr: The loud guy in the bar has changed

Any screentime for Burr is a “bonus”. After appearing alongside Al Pacino and Christopher Walken in the crime drama Stand Up Guys, he enthuses in his distinctive, wiseguy drawl that “if you could have told me back when I was working in warehouses that I’d be working with those great and funny guys, I would have had an ear-to-ear grin. I’d probably need to sit down for a second because my mind would have been blown. Back then, I didn’t even have the courage to do five minutes on stage because I was so nervous about failure.”

Rolling Stone recently anointed the splenetic 45-year-old as heir apparent to Louis CK, currently the planet’s pre-eminent stand-up. Burr is embarrassed and uncomfortable about the comparison to his fellow Bostonian. But there’s no doubt that he’s fiercely admired by his peers. When I bumped into Kevin Bridges recently, the Glaswegian comic told me he was flying to New York principally to see the American perform.

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The most remarkable aspect of Burr’s year, though, is that after railing against marriage for so long, he finally tied the knot with his long-time girlfriend Nia Hill. Hearing him opine at length on US divorce law and mortgage payments while on the phone from his Los Angeles home, with an intensity comparable to the combative delivery he deploys on stage, I’m intrigued to discover what changed.

“I guess I just had a tremendous fear,” he says of his reluctance to get hitched. “I’m a control freak.” Maybe too there’s some of that growing awareness of time passing that he’s currently performing routines about. But the West Coast lifestyle obviously suits him, because as he bragged on his podcast recently, “for my age, below the dome, I look phenomenal!”

He chuckles about that now. “I’m told I’m middle-aged. But most people … I don’t care how much bran cereal you’re eating, you won’t make it to 90. So I’m talking a lot more about my own safety and mortality.” Also, he says, lowering his voice, “I’ve really tried to stop trashing women so much. And maybe deal with some of my issues with them.”

In his previous show, You People Are All The Same, Burr provoked liberal sensibilities by denouncing domestic violence while questioning the idea that there is never “any reason” for it, arguing that to pretend otherwise ignores the circumstances of any specific relationship. His 2010 Scottish debut was similarly memorable for the manner in which his portrayal of women as shrewish harpies split the Glasgow King’s Theatre audience in three, between those that loudly took offence, others that volubly agreed and those who didn’t care and simply wanted to hear the end of the routine.

“If you want to yell out something, that’s never bothered me,” he explains. “I don’t think that my opinion is the end of the discussion. The reason why I say that I’m ‘a moron’ or ‘an idiot’ on stage is because I realise I’ve probably only had 0.1 per cent of the information I need to form an intelligent opinion about most of the things I’m saying. Plenty of people can relate to that.”

Burr likens his persona to “that loud guy in the bar”, and the honesty of his gut, “uninformed logic” challenges those who overlook that, beneath all the unabashed, blue-collar political incorrectness, he himself is invariably the butt of the joke.

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The rage which fuels his humour, inherited from his father and bound up with the work ethic of his tough Irish-German family, still manifests itself in furious tirades against corporate greed and airport security.

“Getting older, running into the same brick wall enough times, eventually you have to look at yourself and ask ‘how am I contributing to this?’ In my twenties and into my thirties, I was like ‘women are psychos!’ But after the seventh psycho you’ve dated, you’ve got to wonder ‘why do I keep picking this person?’ I don’t think I wanted to be in a relationship so I was just picking women who were out of their f***ing minds.”

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Today, he feels “like I’ve exhausted my complaints about women. I need to try to understand them a little better.”
• Bill Burr plays the O2 Academy, Glasgow, on 4 December.